Forced to do the bidding of a corrupt government minister, Marianne de Bonnard agrees to plant incriminating evidence in the offices of France’s most notorious spymaster. Under cover of night, the tightrope-walking thief puts her skills to good use—until her aerial stunt is foiled when her target appears in the window and, with consummate poise, helps Marianne off the wire and into his lair. The tremors that run through her body are not just from fear; there’s an unwanted frisson of desire there, too. But is it because of her elegant, wickedly handsome host . . . or his proposition?
Nicolas Valette has had plans for his graceful trespasser since he witnessed her unique skills at the Cirque Olympique. Sinuous as a cat, Marianne is perfect for his next mission, but she refuses his generous offer for fear of disobeying her family’s tormenter. When their mutual enemy auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder, Nicolas leaps at the chance to purchase her cooperation. Keeping her will be like trying to tame a wild animal, but what’s life without a little risk? Besides, Nicolas and Marianne both want the same thing: revenge—and, perhaps, something else that’s equally delicious.
I was lucky enough to read a number of very strong début novels last year, and that trend is continuing into 2016 with K.C Bateman’s To Steal a Heart, (Secrets and Spies book 1), an action-packed, sexy romantic adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The story grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it – which I did in about two sittings.
Marianne Bonnard has worked at the Cirque Olympique as a tightrope walker and circus performer for the last five or six years, ever since the death of her parents in a fire. This left her and her younger sister, Sophie, with nobody but each other, and everything Marianne does is focused on keeping Sophie safe and well. After the fire, they were brought to Paris by their slimy cousin Duval, a corrupt official with responsibility for overseeing the city’s many brothels, who threatened to put the girls – then aged ten and fourteen – to work in one of them. But Marianne struck a deal with him. If she could find a way to earn enough money to more than pay for their keep, she would do that instead, on condition that he left Sophie alone. Duval agreed, although not without conditions, which are that Sophie remains in Paris under his control and that Marianne steals and spies for him.
Her latest assignment is to plant some incriminating evidence in the apartment of Nicolas Valette, spymaster, protégé of two of France’s most powerful men, and, according to some, one of the most dangerous men in France. But Valette’s reputation for being one step ahead the game is not undeserved; on the night Marianne is due to break into his study, he is there waiting for her, aware of what she’s there to do. But instead of killing her or turning her in, he makes her an offer. He will protect her sister and destroy Duval if she will undertake to work on one mission for – and with – him.
I’m not going to give the game away, save to say that the mission is an audacious one and Ms Bateman does a terrific job in balancing the romance with the action-based elements of the plot. Marianne and Valette are instantly attracted to each other, but the author rightly focuses on the task at hand, keeping their attraction at a simmer and allowing it to develop through thoughts and feelings as they circle warily around each other. Nicolas is controlled and frighteningly competent, yet we’re shown Marianne gradually getting under his skin, especially during the time they spend together as he puts her through a gruelling training regime. He pushes her to her limits time and again and she tries to hate him for it – but he knows what she’s going to be up against and what she’s going to have to be able to do if she’s going to survive. The sexual chemistry between them is smoking hot and some of the best I’ve read; and their acerbic, sharp-tongued verbal sparring is perfectly done.
“Do you speak Italian?”
“A little. Laurent taught me. Especially swearwords. ‘Vaffunculo,’” she offered sweetly, “means go f—“
I know what it means,” he said with a dark chuckle. “Good. We’re Italian. You’re my wife, Fatima.”
Nerves made her snippy. “My father would be so proud. He always hoped I’d marry a lying turncoat spy.”
There’s never the sense that these characters are flirting just for the sake of it; rather, the things Valette and Marianne say and do arise naturally out of the situations in which they find themselves. Unlike so many historical romantic spy stories where the espionage plot is nebulous and clearly little more than a way of throwing the hero and heroine together, in To Steal a Heart, there’s a real sense of danger and of something important being at stake.
I won’t deny that there’s a modernity of tone to some aspects of the storyline and dialogue, but it’s not obtrusive and this is one of those books where the story is so entertaining and the characters so engaging as to make it easy to overlook the odd slip. The plot is well-thought out and the characterisation of the leads is excellent. Marianne reminds me somewhat of Annique from Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady. She’s determined, courageous, skilled and quick-witted, and won’t take any crap from the men around her; and like Grey, Valette knows she can handle herself and doesn’t try to cosset her or wrap her up in cotton wool. Nicolas Valette is, quite simply, sex on legs. Handsome, dangerously charming, highly intelligent, devious and completely ruthless, he is the sort of man from whom one would probably run a mile in real life, but as the hero of a romance novel? Oh, yes please! *swoon*
Valette’s life for the past six years has been ruled by his overwhelming desire for revenge against Napoleon for the murder of his younger brother, while Marianne has to overcome the events of her past in order to move forward. These aspects of their characters are dealt with reasonably well, although in the end, Nicolas’ desire for revenge almost costs them both dear. Because of that, I am a little torn over the events which lead up to the ending of the book. Nicolas makes a choice which is so perfectly in character that it’s difficult to see how he could have made a different one, but it means he and Marianne are not together at a crucial point in the story. It’s true she’s not a heroine who needs saving and does pretty well on her own, thank-you-very-much – but I still felt just the tiniest bit cheated that they weren’t together at that point. That said, I have to applaud Ms Bateman for the direction she takes because to have done things differently would have been out of character for both of them.
I dithered over the final grade for To Steal a Heart, wondering whether to give it a B+ or an A- and thus make it a DIK. I’ve gone with my gut instinct – the DIK – mainly because the high level of engagement I experienced and sheer entertainment value mean it’s a book I’m likely to re-read. And on top of that, the writing and characterisation are superb, the romance is hot, snarky and tender and the hero is delicious. I couldn’t ask for much more in an historical romance and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever Ms Bateman comes up with next.